Odds-On Oscar Favorites Emerge as Noms Near

Even if you dismiss the Golden Globes event as nothing but a big Hollywood party, it's perfectly timed to have a major impact on the Academy Awards.

Indeed, while the stars of "Brokeback Mountain" were celebrating this week, many Oscar voters were hard at work, screening any films they'd missed to submit their ballots in time to meet the Jan. 21 deadline for Academy Award nominations. These results are released 10 days later.

Clearly, Ang Lee's controversial cowboy film got a major boost at a critical time -- and few disagree that that isn't an advantage.

"If timing and perception weren't important, studios wouldn't wait until the end of the year to release their Oscar hopefuls," says Toby Miller, director of the film and video culture program at the University of California at Riverside.

"Winning a Globe makes you look like an Oscar front-runner."

Sure, the Globes are picked by the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association -- there are fewer than 100 members and many of them are not the most prominent critics. But the Academy Awards are chosen by some 6,000 film industry professionals, including the most prominent actors, directors, producers in Hollywood.

Still, the Globes show gets more press and higher TV ratings than any other pre-Oscar awards show, and for most of the public, the ceremony signals the kickoff to the awards season.

'It Was a Joke at One Point'

Over the years, the Globes have made some famously bad choices, so bad that the credibility of the event has at times been called into question. When Pia Zadora won "New Star of the Year" in 1982, it became the joke of Hollywood. Her turn in "Butterfly" had been widely dismissed by critics. Still, voters saw fit to honor her above future Oscar-winner Kathleen Turner, Elizabeth McGovern and Rachel Ward, among other nominees.

It was later widely reported that Zadora's billionaire husband had treated some Globe voters to luxury vacations.

"It was a joke at one point. They were whores for a while, and they suffered mightily for their mistakes," says film historian Louis Giannetti, author of "Understanding Film."

"But it can't be denied that these days the Globes are one of the most watched awards shows, and the winners get a major pre-Oscar bounce."

To be sure, nine of the past 11 Academy Awards for best picture won either the best drama or best musical or comedy award at the Globes. Of course, members of the Hollywood foreign press don't seem like such swamis when you consider that they're the only major awarding group that offers two categories for best picture and other categories, doubling their chances of picking the eventual Oscar winner.

Even then, the Globes are hardly infallible. Top film honors last year went to "The Aviator" for drama and "Sideways" for comedy/musical. Both Oscar-nominated films lost out to "Million Dollar Baby."

But you have to go back to 1996's "Braveheart" to find the last Oscar-winner without corresponding honors at the Globes -- and ultimately, there's no such thing as a foolproof Academy Award prognosticator.

Oscar Betting Takes Shape

If nothing else, winning top honors at the Globes nearly guarantees a film's chance of becoming an Oscar favorite. "We don't handicap the films by quality. The betting lines for award shows are established by the public's perception of which film has momentum," says Peter Ross of YourWager.com.

"Brokeback Mountain" and "Walk the Line" were both heavy, one-to-three favorites to win their respective categories at the Globes, and both emerged victorious. (Unfortunately, for betting fans of these movies, the payoff was only $1 for every $3 wagered.)

Betting lines on the Oscars won't be established until Jan. 31, when nominations are handed down. But by leading the Globes with four awards, including best drama, best director for Lee, best original song and best screenplay, "Brokeback" is likely to emerge as a one-to-four favorite to become the Oscar's best picture, Ross estimates.

"With the victory at the Globes, I can't see another film replacing 'Brokeback' as the leader of the pack," Ross says, "but we'll see."

Serious Oscar watchers are now poring over the Globe results, looking for more subtle signs of what's to come. As well as "Brokeback" did, it didn't take any of the acting awards, and that could be bad news for stars Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams.

Steven Spielberg's "Munich" and Peter Jackson's "King Kong" didn't even get best drama nominations, and that could be an indication of what's ahead for two of Hollywood's most bankable directors.

In the weeks to come, we'll get a better idea of who the front-runners will be as the Screen Actors Guild, the Director's Guild of America and other film industry groups hand out their awards. These groups constitute large contingents of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- and they're the ones who are actually Oscar voters.

With that in mind, here's how some of the most-watched races are shaping up.

Best Director: Ang Lee is widely perceived as the man to beat. He's never won, and he's widely respected for such work as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Sense and Sensibility." He's also gotten raves in Hollywood for producing "Brokeback Mountain" for $14 million -- a mere bag of shells by modern film-budget standards -- after the script languished for nearly a decade, with studios wary of backing a love story involving gay cowboys.

"It's Lee's to lose, and unless he commits an act of terrorism before Oscar night, this category will be a coronation rather than a contest," says film critic and professor Dennis Maher at the University of Texas at Arlington, who predicts Oscar-winners Ron Howard ("Cinderella Man") and Peter Jackson won't even be nominated.

If Lee is challenged, it'll most likely come from George Clooney, for "Good Night, and Good Luck." Actors form the single largest segment of Academy voters, and you can expect that they'd favor their own. Certainly that didn't hurt two-time best director Clint Eastwood, last year's winner.

If Lee manages to lose at least he'll be in good company. Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick -- a trio who could easily top a list of Hollywood's all-time greatest filmmakers -- never won best director honors.

Still, this is only Clooney's second film as a director. Robert Redford may have won on his first time out with "Ordinary People," but Clooney's still a long shot.

Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix, who played Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line" has a lot in common with Jamie Foxx, who won last year for "Ray." Both took on the roles of music legends, and both did all their own singing, getting rave reviews.

Biographical roles have certainly helped winners. But Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played another real-life character in "Capote," is likely to prevail, said film historian Louis Giannetti.

"Phoenix and Hoffman both took Golden Globe awards, and that makes them leaders of the pack, but Hoffman's a bit older. It's a more serious role, and he's got so many good roles under his belt. He's never won, and it's his time."

Ledger had a breakout performance in "Brokeback," but he lost to Hoffman at the Golden Globes, and he's coming off a string of bubblegum roles in action-adventure movies that didn't necessarily light up the box office. "Go with the older man," Giannetti says. "That's how it usually plays out."

Best Actress: If there's one safe bet this year, it's Reese Witherspoon as best actress for her portrayal of June Carter in "Walk the Line."

Like her co-star Phoenix, she had little previous musical experience, yet did all her own singing and also managed to portray the woman who saved Cash from his inner demons. "She's brought home so many pictures, from 'Legally Blonde' movies to period pieces, and she's widely loved in the industry," Miller said.

Playing a man about to undergo a sex-change operation in "Transamerica," Felicity Huffman turned in one of the most talked-about roles of the year. However, the film hasn't been playing in many theaters. She won the Golden Globe for dramatic acting over Oscar winners Charlize Theron (North Country") and Gwyneth Paltrow ("Proof"), among others, and that might bode well for her career in film, but not enough to prevail in a head-to-head contest with Witherspoon.

Best Supporting Actor: George Clooney took the Golden Globe in this category for his work in "Syriana," and he's the man to beat. With a hand in two films that earned Oscar consideration, he could be poised to spend a lot of time in the winners' circle.

"That reputation as 'ER's' pretty boy seems so far off," Giannetti says. "They said it about Redford. They said it about Newman. Clooney is aspiring to that level, and this could seal the deal. Some people are just blessed with brains and talent."

But Giannetti thinks Gyllenhaal could surprise, especially if "Brokeback Mountain" turns into a juggernaut.

Maher, on the other hand, is putting his money on dark horse Paul Giamatti, who was snubbed at last year's Oscars, despite his success in "Sideways." Giamatti didn't even earn a nomination, to the shock of many. This year he's back as Russell Crowe's fight trainer in "Cinderella Man." While the movie earned good reviews, it tanked at the box office. Still, Maher thinks Giamatti will earn "Cinderella Man's" only Oscar nod -- and win.

Best Supporting Actress: Best supporting actress is often the biggest surprise category on Oscar Night. And again this year, no front-runner is emerging. Rachel Weisz won at the Golden Globes for "The Constant Gardener," and she might be the closest we get to a favorite until the envelope is opened.

Despite her performance in "Lost in Translation," Scarlett Johansson didn't earn a nomination last year. With her latest performance in "Match Point," the 21-year-old actress is likely to get that honor, and perhaps she will grab the gold.

Another 20-something, Michelle Williams, gave a heart-rending performance in "Brokeback" as the wife of a man who is never able to come to terms with his true sexual desires. But she might not have enough screen time in that film to be a serious candidate.

Best Picture: While "Brokeback" has been called controversial, it's topped many critics list as best picture of 2005. The film is currently grossing more per screening than any other film in America, and it's already earned $33 million at the box office. That's about three times as much as "Million Dollar Baby" had earned at this time last year. That's also significantly more than several films it's likely to compete against, including "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Capote," "A History of Violence" and "The Squid and the Whale."

"I think there's a good chance that 'Munich' and 'Brokeback Mountain' will be nominated, and you'll see the Academy choosing between controversial films," Miller says.

Other possible candidates, like "Crash" and "Walk the Line," have a reasonable shot at earning a nomination. But that may be as far as they get.

"Big films like 'The Lord of the Rings' have been serious Oscar contenders in recent years," Miller says. "But I don't see 'King Kong' or 'The Chronicles of Narnia' entering into this year's equation. This year is going to be an Oscar contest against smaller films. There was no 'Titanic'.

"It's going to be a dangerous year for gamblers, but a good year for debate."